Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Challenges in communicating co-constructed knowledge to influence policy

By Fran Seballos

Fran Seballos is Partnership Officer at the Institute of Development Studies. She served as moderator and discussant in the recent IDS Seminar on New roles for communication in development research which coincided with launch of the IDS Bulletin on the same topic. She shares her thoughts on how this seminar has influenced her thinking in this role.

I have spent the past few months getting to grips with the idea of "partnering for knowledge co-construction" - specifically for generating knowledge that can influence policy. The emphasis on influence led me to an exploration of ways in which co-constructed knowledge is adapted for and communicated to specific (and sometimes imagined) audiences. For me, what emerged from the seminar on Communications for Development (and from reading the Bulletin!) was a re-framing of development communication as an inherent and ongoing part of the research process - which fits quite neatly with the idea of co-constructing knowledge.

What do I mean by co-construction knowledge?

My understanding of co-construction is as a 'social learning process premised on interaction between diverse actors and rooted in human relationships'. Partnering is an essential part of co-construction and ultimately the continuous communication of ideas, experiences and knowledge between partners and other collaborators is the basis of a ‘learning-to-know’ process.

But the notion of co-construction for policy influencing reveals some of the tensions described in the Bulletin – around legitimacy of knowledge, where expertise lies, and to whom (and how) it should be made relevant or ‘serviceable’. One of the primary risks of taking a co-construction approach to generating knowledge for policy influencing is that a traditional reduction of knowledge into a set of implications for policy (Abstracted Adaptation) means that much of the back-stage learning becomes invisible (See Nowotny, 2007).

It also exposes the process to a set of parameters handed down from the policy sphere about what counts as evidence. This creates an immediate tension of accountability in the communication process between - on the one hand - the demand for a policy-relevant output that must have salience and legitimacy for its pre-determined target audience, and, on the other, the need to be accountable to the knowledge holders participating in the process, meeting their needs and expectations.

Slide from Tessa Lewin's presentation at the Institute of Development Studies. The whole presentation can be viewed at:

From a partnerships perspective - where all partners’ goals and objectives should be recognised in a common process - co-construction should provide opportunity for those engaged to benefit their own social change and knowledge development agenda. Therefore communicating knowledge must be explicitly designed into the process in ways that are sensitive to the needs and knowledges of those engaged in it, and in ways that support the intended knowledge users to engage with and learn from the different framings inherent in a co-construction process.

Where co-construction can be aligned with communication for development, what implications does this have for partnerships?

A partnership needs to share its expectations on why it is conducting the research or co-constructing knowledge; which spaces it hopes to influence; where they would like to see change happen; and who the critical actors are that can support or enable change: these may be diverse.

Secondly they need to understand which partner has the skills to communicate in which space and with which actor; what methodology is appropriate and relevant to whom; and how they intend to maximise the opportunities for communication and/or engagement throughout the process.

Thirdly they need to consider how a process of co-construction enables learning and knowledge development for those they intend to engage in the process. This means thinking about which methods of communicating knowledge can: support the intended knowledge exchange and co-construction processes;  and support participants to communicate with their specific networks

Finally, by conceiving of co-construction as a communication process, partners can draw on a much larger method box - not only to enable, capture and share learning in multiple ways but also to introduce innovation into a co-construction process

Ref: NOWOTNY, H. 2007. How Many Policy Rooms are There? : Evidence-Based and Other Kinds of Science Policies. Science Technology & Human Values, 32, 479-490. 

Fran Seballos is Partnerships Officer at the Institute of Development Studies.  

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development?